Magical girls have long been illustrious in empowering the feminine, and framing fragility as the groundwork for true strength. Sailor Moon may never have become fearless, but she did learn to face the terrors of her world – including death itself – with the resolve to defend her friends and the world she belongs to. But something shifted in the genre’s sparkly heart for the onset of a new beast; the dark magical girl. Instead of warding off fear and conquering evil with love and compassion, a wave of anime like Puella Magi Madoka Magica saw their protagonists consumed by their fear, left helpless by the deep anguish of being a girl on the precipice of puberty. These girls must bear not only the weight of adolescence, but the horror of the darker world they discover while trying to find their place within it.
In a recent discourse for Anime Feminist, Alex Henderson explored the rise of such shows as Magical Girl Raising Project, their dive into destruction for a higher calling sending its deceptive optimism spiralling into despair. Opposing the reception of “stomping on little girls’ dreams” as an intelligent deconstruction of the magical girl, this approach alone is an ideological step down from their parables of love and hope. But avoiding the stream of thought that darkness and horror forfeit intellectual stimuli and the possibility for an uplifting moral, anime following in Madoka Magica’s footsteps, including its own Rebellion sequel film, have misunderstood the significance of the series’ dark heart. Madoka takes the terror of growing up, the scramble to discover your worth before you set out alone, and puts those fears on fast-forward. When Madoka is still finding her footing as a magical girl, she loses her mentor, Mami, who’s killed by a witch before her very eyes. Through primal grief, the show drives home our cluelessness towards what independence entails at that age. Growing up means being held accountable for your own actions, sometimes left with nobody to defend you but yourself. And while Sailor Moon gently presents those ideas to a young audience, for adult viewers, magical girls aren’t about learning that this is the case.
The mature audience for Madoka and her generation of magical girls is still terrified of the realities of being an adult. We know the names of the pains that threaten to make us collapse. Trying our best and meeting with failure, losing loved ones, dreams being unattainable until you’re willing to push yourself beyond fear. It’s important to reflect on the stark suffering of growing up, so we can understand where we came from, and remember what was overcome to make it to adulthood. Commenting on Henderson’s piece, Sim Le makes the point that dark magical girls are “meant to give voice to the multitudes who don’t realize their dreams: who die young or are crippled with physical or mental illness”. It presents these cruelties and truths with the hopeful message that we should take responsibility for our dreams by facing the world as it is and, even knowing its darkness, fight for our place.
The issues creep in with the suffering of women and girls being used as an edginess generator. It’s a line that Madoka teeters on, threating to stumble over. When this line is crossed, audiences are denied the recognition of this suffering as real suffering. It starts to adopt the ‘final girl’ mentality of many horror narratives, which becomes particularly disturbing where young girls are concerned. The tortured, virginal vessel for catharsis escapes danger, but her story cuts off there, refuting this character any expression of her humanity by trimming her trauma. The difference with Madoka is that, more often than not, it’s willing to explore and understand its characters’ trauma.
If we take Madoka as a psychological horror, its problematic nature becomes less surprising. Le’s response conjures the practicality of horror as a means of exposing ourselves to our deepest fears, about the world around us and ourselves. Insignificance, an inability to free a terrifying world from suffering, underpins Madoka’s leap into becoming a magical girl on the promise of a granted wish from Kyubey. It’s a grim truth that wishes can only come true by giving up something of oneself. All the girls who take up Kyubey’s contract are unwittingly consigning themselves to become the very force of evil they’re fighting. They become the witches, the inert, ostracised monsters capable of nothing but jealous rage. It’s the punishment for a lazy approach to life, that waiting and expecting a wish to be dropped in your lap will only lead to dissatisfaction, envy and anger.
It’s all too easy to make these mistakes when we feel powerless, and Madoka’s conceptual grounding was in this acknowledgement. Even though Madoka rushed into something she didn’t understand on a whim of self-validation, she redeemed herself by making the decision necessary to become a true saviour. She realised that reaching deep inside herself for her full potential was the only way to create a world free of witches, and she becomes glorious in self-sacrifice. Absorbing the misery of the witches and scattering with it across the cosmos, she becomes a goddess who can create the world she wants to see her friends love as she did. This ultimate in positive authority, the unlocking of a frightening potential that is the quintessence of the magical girl, is something adult audiences need to recapture.
As Henderson expresses, adult women shouldn’t be the villains of the stories we otherwise relate to. It’s that same refusal to keep feeding the evil in the world for the sake of a wish that Madoka actualises in her sacrifice. Emerging from total darkness and absence of hope as a magical girl, Madoka becomes an adult, and shows us that hope, magic and maturity shouldn’t be separate. But darkness can’t always be defeated, and all that’s permanent is our own resolve to defend against it. Death is not something to be vanquished as in Sailor Moon, but an absolute that must be accepted. Madoka tackles the pressure of mortality and the permanence of grief, asserting for everyone who’s left the blissful ignorance of youth behind that, even through all those unfortunate truths, we can still shine a glow of hope.